BEETHOVEN 200 YEARS AGO TODAY: Friday, December 22, 1820 (approximately)

Franz Oliva and his employer Joseph Biedermann depart around now for Moscow, for an intended stay of three months. Presumably their trip is to make arrangements for sheep’s wool to be exported to Russia, since that was Biedermann’s principal line of business. Their actual departure date for Russia would have been recorded by the Vienna police, but unfortunately the relevant records were destroyed in a fire at the Justiz-Palast in 1927. Oliva was not notable enough for his leaving the City to be recorded in the daily Departures section of the Wiener Zeitung. Biedermann’s departure does not merit a mention there either, perhaps because he was Jewish. While the Departures column primarily references various nobles leaving the City, other merchants frequently appear in the listings.

According to archival musicologist Michael Lorenz, the processing of Oliva’s passport would probably not have taken very long. At that time there were multiple government agencies, and even noblemen, in Vienna that could issue passports. For instance, Biedermann did not use the City’s office for his passport. The fact there were multiple sources of passports probably helped alleviate any backlogs. Since travel was difficult and expensive, demand for passports was likely not all that high in the first place. Given that Oliva waited until December 15 to apply for a passport he would need in “late December,” he can’t have expected the processing to take more than a week or so. Given the specificity of the timing Oliva has known about for many months, there seems to be some appointed date where he and Biedermann must be present in Moscow.

Oliva leaves apparently intending to return within three months, the duration of his passport. But instead of returning to Vienna and Beethoven at the end of that time, Oliva will overstay his passport, move to St. Petersburg, marry, and within the year find a new career as a German language and literature teacher at the Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoje-Selo, the summer residence of the czars. This was an institution of the first rank, founded in 1811 by Tsar Alexander I (who you may recall had dinner with Archduke Rudolph in Troppau at least twice over the last two weeks) with the express object of educating select youths of the best families. They would go on to occupy important posts in the imperial service. Oliva was very highly regarded as a professor, as numerous festival and commemorative writings attest. One indicator of his estimation is that he survived Tsar Alexander’s purge of foreign educators in the mid-1820s. Oliva will live out the rest of his life there, dying of cholera in 1848, probably without ever seeing Beethoven again.

Perhaps the row over the near-default on the loan Oliva had arranged for Beethoven entered into the decision to leave Vienna for good. However, any remaining hard feelings between the two were resolved at some point. Beethoven kept in contact with his trusted friend and adviser and wrote to him in Russia. Oliva’s daughter Elisabeth told Beethoven scholar Otto Jahn in the early 1850s that all of Beethoven’s letters to her father were lost in a fire. Likewise, no letters that Oliva wrote to Beethoven, which might explain his abrupt change of plans, have survived. As a result, Oliva’s place in Beethoven history has been significantly overlooked.

Oliva had been born November 24, 1786, in the Auwinkel neighborhood of Vienna, near St. Maria Rotunda, where he was baptized Franz Seraficus Oliva. His father, Adam Oliva, was an imperial book censor, and the family was rather poor. Franz does not appear to have attended university, but after attending a Jesuit high school went to work as a clerk for the firm of Offenheimer & Herz, which wholesaled Hungarian products, in about 1806. He seems to have been an autodidact, reading broadly in literature, as shown by his familiarity with Shakespeare. When and how exactly he met Beethoven is unknown, but their close association goes back at least to 1809. Beethoven used him as a go-between with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and had Oliva visit the poet in Weimar for him in early May, 1811. Goethe did not suffer fools lightly, so he must have been impressed by the young man, whom he twice had dine with him. We know that Oliva was at least a tolerably good pianist from the fact he played Beethoven’s “newest compositions and songs” for Goethe, who described the works played as “infinite beauties in detail” and “devilish stuff.” One of Goethe’s companions, when recounting the visits, twice referred to Oliva as being “bent over” and “hunched over,” though whether these descriptions reflect an actual deformity, poor posture, or simply bowing excessively in respect to Goethe, is uncertain.

Although Oliva barely figures in the standard Beethoven biographies, he has been essential to Beethoven through some very difficult times, off and on since at least 1809 [the two had another violent eruption in September, 1811, and after they patched that up, Oliva spent an unspecified amount of time working in Hungary starting in late 1813]. Oliva even wrote out brother Caspar Carl’s Will for him. Franz was sorely needed, even if he was not always appreciated, by Beethoven. The composer did dedicate his Six Piano Variations on an Original Theme, op.76 (1809, published 1810), “à mon ami Oliva.” They have been through quite a lot together over the years. I feel like I’ve gotten to know Oliva through this project, and I know I’ll miss him and his willingness to be frank with Beethoven, while still obviously having great affection for the composer and the man. While Beethoven will acquire other unpaid assistants from time to time, none of them will serve as long or as faithfully as has Franz Oliva.

And thus we wave goodbye and bid Franz Oliva a fond farewell as he disappears from these pages into snowy Russia.